Marbella: O'Malley's sales tax ruminations show his druthers

A new style of civics for the state's chief executive

January 14, 2012|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

What next?

Maybe a tweet: "@GovernorOMalley en route to watermen's conference on shore. Wouldn't it be cool if the #BayBridge were #BayTunnel instead? Calling @MDTA now..."

Forget all that stuff you learned in civics class about lining up your legislative ducks first, or hammering out back-room compromises, or even issuing executive orders. Last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley introduced us to government by random rumination.

O'Malley took the occasion of the opening of the General Assembly to note, oh so casually, that he'd like to see a penny increase to the sales tax. How casually? He said that this was his "druthers."

I don't know what was funnier: the idea that the governor of the great state of Maryland has no power beyond idle druthering to get something done in Annapolis, or the sputtering reaction from legislators caught unaware by O'Malley's sorta, kinda, not really actual proposal.

For one thing, it's just Not Done this way in Annapolis, where much of what happens tends to follow a predetermined path. No sudden moves, no one gets hurt. Media outlets like The Sun write pre-session, agenda-delineating stories, legislators and interested parties start the drumbeat for certain initiatives and everyone arrives knowing at least the vague outlines of what they'll take up over the next 90 days.

Primed for a session that would be about same-sex marriage and proposed hikes in gas and sewer taxes, you could almost hear the collective cry to O'Malley's BTW moment: Nobody said nothing 'bout a sales tax increase!

And, given the current climate in which taxes = outrage, some lawmakers predictably enough went straight to DEFCON 5. "It's repulsive, and I mean that sincerely," Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the minority leader, informed The Washington Post. (Pipkin had an equally understated response to the proposed gas tax increase: "If you really want this, then tax yourself to death.")

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller let it go with a simple not gonna happen. Which likely means it's indeed not gonna happen.

It's hard to tell how serious O'Malley himself was about a sales tax hike, letting it float out there in so offhand a fashion rather than as part of a formal package.

Who knows, maybe it was a diversionary tactic, as in, oh my God, look at that big, bad sales tax proposal floating out above you; pay no attention to what they're doing to the gas tax behind the curtain over there. Maybe saying he'd like a full 1 percent increase will make, say, a later proposal of a fraction of that seem almost negligible.

Or maybe the sales tax is being taken hostage — nice 6 percent tax you have now, be a shame if something should happen to it because you wouldn't go for a little bump in the gas tax.

In any event, as usual, lawmakers are going to have to figure out some way balance the state budget and close a projected $1.1 billion shortfall. Cue up yet another round of spending cuts-versus-revenue increases.

While the penny increase in the sales tax would go a long way toward cutting that — it would generate an estimated $600 million in revenue — I'm not convinced that's the way to go. For one thing, the sales tax was just increased in 2007; for another, it tends to be regressive, taking a bigger toll on those at the lower end of the income scale.

But tax increases, however unpalatable, need to at least be on the table for discussion along with spending cuts. Starting from a position that taxes can never be increased is no more helpful than declaring that funding levels have to remain where they are.

Of course, it helps, whether you're raising taxes or cutting spending, to have an actual plan, rather than druthers.

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